HullPixelbots at AzureCraft

 HullPixelbots on parade

HullPixelbots on parade

Well, that was fun. It was the first proper outing for my robot army. We were all at AzureCraft in London. It was an absolutely great event, kids getting together to make things in MInecraft. And learn to program along the way.

I'd set up my Robot Arena in one of the board rooms at the fantastic venue. Over the day groups of kids and parents came to take up the challenge of controlling their robots and getting them to line up in the arena with no collisions. Harder than it looked, but everyone who came along was up for the task. Quite a few folks came back for another go, which was nice. 

Great fun. Thanks to the folks at the UK Azure User Group for setting up the event and inviting me along. 

 A tense moment as the pixels line up...

A tense moment as the pixels line up...

Surface Dial controlling a Hull Pixelbot

I've managed to get my hands on a Surface Dial. It's a spiffy new PC control that acts like an, er, dial. You can use it to manipulate value in programs in a very precise and controlled way. The dial works best with the Surface Studio (which I've not been able to get my hands on) but you can use it on any PC which has Bluetooth. It appears as a Human Interface Device and has a really simple API that you can use to make any of your programs dial controlled. 

I wanted to use it to control the movement of my Hull Pixelbot and, after only half an hour or so of coding I had it working. 

It's not a particularly direct form of control just yet, but that is because of the way I'm sending control messages via the Azure Internet of Things hub, which is not really created for such rapid messaging, but it does work, which is rather nice.  I made a "hotel vision" video of the program working. I'm going change the code to make a more direct connection to the robot. 

Of course, what I really want is two dials on the PC, one for speed and the other for direction, but just at the moment you can't connect two Surface Dial devices to a single PC. 

Martyn Talks Azure at C4DI

I like going to the C4DI developer meetups. If you are a programmer and you are based in Hull, you should go along too. You can sign up for developer and also the hardware meetups here

Anyhoo, this month we had Martyn Coupland talking about Azure. Martyn works for Inframon as a "Senior Cloud Architect". As he said his job title I had this vision of a meeting full of serious faced engineers saying things like "And this is our new Cumulonimbus 5000, with extra fluffy light bits...". But that would be silly.

What Martyn actually does is map business process onto platforms based in the "cloud". The cloud is basically a bunch of computers on the end of a high performance network connection. It is how you turn computing into a service, rather like water or power, which you can buy based on your needs.

If you have a thing you want to do, for example host a web site, provide the back-end for an application or even run a business, the first thing you do isn't buy a big rack of computers. What you do is talk to someone like Martyn who will design you a system that lives in the cloud.

If your idea takes off big time you don't have a problem, you just crack open the champagne and turn on more cloud based processing power. If your idea sinks without trace you put the champagne back in the fridge, chalk it up to experience and work on the next project, reflecting that at least you haven't got a room full of expensive hardware to get rid of.

Martyn gave a very good rundown of how Microsoft Azure works and how good it is. I knew a bit of this from the Rather Useful Seminar by Caitlin and Peter but it was very interesting to hear how it has progressed even in this short time. Most amazing fact for me was that the majority of Azure installations don't run Windows software. I forget the figure (forgot to write it down) but there are a huge number of open source solutions sitting out there on Microsoft infrastructure. It turns out that you can build an image using your favourite operating system, whatever that is, and then deploy it into the cloud very easily. 

At the end of the talk I was chatting with Martyn about Hull Pixel Bot and mentioned that I plan to make the robots all clients of an Azure based location and communication service. He reckoned that it was eminently doable, which was good to know.  He'll be coming back to Hull to do some more, implementation focused, sessions later in the year. He's also an MVP, which is nice.

Azure Rather Useful Seminar from Caitlin and Peter

 Caitlin and Peter looking relaxed at the start

Caitlin and Peter looking relaxed at the start

Caitlin and Peter, two of our students,  gave a Rather Useful Seminar today all about Azure. I like it when students give seminars. There are a few good reasons for this:

  • students tend to know what is relevant to other students and can pitch the material accordingly
  • It's a great experience for the students to actually give a presentation to an audience
  • I don't have to do any talking, I can just sit and watch

Anyhoo, they showed us how easy it is to build a cloud based service that your program can then use, and that all this cloudy goodness is available for free via Microsoft DreamSpark

At the end of their talk I asked for a show of hands for anyone interested in learning more, and perhaps taking part in an Azure jam session in one of our labs. Pretty much every hand in the room went up. Including mine. 

So, in the next week or so we'll see about booking one of our labs for an hour or so and having a go at building a web application from scratch. Should be fun.

Thanks to Caitlin and Peter for putting Azure into context so nicely.